Intermission: DU Law Preview Program—The Intersection of the Personal and Professional Self

On Monday I had the privilege of being one of the first people to welcome a number (59, to be exact) of our new 1Ls to law school. In the introductory session I shared with them a lot of the ideas I have been working with in this blog. I hope I gave these students a fair shake.

The session was the first in a week-long preview program that DU offers to incoming 1Ls weeks prior to the beginning of their first semester of law school.  During the course of the week, two of our most beloved and accessible professors—Prof. Scott Johns and Prof. Tanya Bartholomew—explain to the students generally what to expect from law school (in particular the first semester) and also touch on more specific topics, like the various sources of law, how to read and brief a case, and how to respond to Socratic questioning. This is my first year running the program, and I wanted to enhance our  emphasis on some of the issues related to humanizing legal education.

On the first day of the program the enthusiasm in the air was palpable.  The students were alert, energetic, and maybe a little nervous.  I was immediately brought back to my first days of law school some fifteen years ago, wondering “What is this going to be like?”  “Who will I be at the end of this experience?”

The first thing I did upon walking into the classroom was to draw all of the shades and turn on the fluorescent lights instead. I had a reason for doing this, namely that the sunlight in Colorado is oppressive—it hurts my eyes and makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Oddly, for someone who lives in this blessed state, I am not a fan of the sun. (I have been referred to as “Vampyre” by some friends.)

I thought of making a joke about how the students were entering a realm without sunshine, but it seemed a little too harsh.

And as I silenced my would-be humor (a rare instance of editing myself), I started thinking about how dealing with 1Ls prior to their first day of classes is different than dealing with other law students. Even a 1L a few weeks into the semester has already started to sense the personal as well as academic challenges that law school entails. But for pre-1Ls, any knowledge of law school is largely gained through apocryphal stories of paper-chasing, humiliation, crushing workloads, and exhaustion.

In working with students who already have some experience with the reality of law school, I can draw on my own experience as a law student, the past three years of working with DU law students, and the literature exploring the educational and interpersonal dynamics of law school.  And sharing this information and perspective with students often feels like throwing out a life-preserver. “This is what’s going on. You’re OK.  Everyone goes through this. You’re going to figure it out.”

But with the pre-1Ls it is almost as if I am a part of the hazing process itself. I have to assert that they are going to experience stress before telling them that they can handle it and pointing them in the direction of resources.  I have to assert that law school will be dehumanizing in some aspects to impress upon them the need to keep track of their attitudes about learning and take care of themselves despite the pressures of their law school education.

I am trying to balance these dynamics by soliciting their views and expectations first and foremost, and qualifying my viewpoint as that of just one of their professors.  Still, I fear I may have been a bit heavy-handed at times.

For example, one of the most challenging themes for me to address was the intersection of professionalism and diversity.  I started out by emphasizing that they are all different in different ways, and that there is no one model of law school success or of a successful law school student.  The keys to success in law school are (1) understanding yourself—your learning style and what it takes for you to perform at your highest level, both personally and academically, and (2) understanding the particular intellectual and social challenges that law school poses.

But at the same time that I was insisting how important diversity is to legal education and ultimately the profession, I also wanted to convey that society’s image of “the lawyer” is a relatively narrow and conservative one, and that part of professionalism is conforming to those expectations—not drawing attention to yourself, but becoming neutral, so that the attention is focused on your client’s best interests, and not on your nose-ring or tattoo or paisley shirt or too-short skirt.

I was trying to tell the students who enjoyed their personal expression to savor that, but put it away when they were acting in their professional capacity.  But I fear I instead conveyed that if you are different in certain ways, you are not going to fit in to the profession.

So again, it’s a fine line, and one that I am tripping and stumbling across and hopefully still making it clear that I am available to talk to students about these questions of how to navigate personal and professional identity.

How to say that they are all different and should not give up on that difference, and at the same time recognize that part of being a professional and advocating successfully for a client means not drawing attention to yourself as an individual, but conforming to the expected role of a lawyer?

I drew one of my famed (sarcasm there) Venn diagrams, showing the intersection of the personal self and the professional self.

How much overlap should there be? What are the pros and cons? When do they overlap? When are they separate?  Hopefully this conveyed the point that a personal self persists even as one acquires the professional self, but that one must be conscious and active in patrolling the boundaries between the two.

Today we are going to address this idea further by discussing Larry Krieger’s booklet, “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress,” and the distinction Krieger draws between lawyering skills and life skills.  Aggressive, take-no-prisoners argumentation?  Perhaps a good layering skill (although certainly not always).  Not so much a desirable life skill, deployed, for example, in a fight with your spouse or your mother.  Law students are asked to and are so intent on acquiring their identity as a lawyer that perhaps they lose sight of this distinction.

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One response to “Intermission: DU Law Preview Program—The Intersection of the Personal and Professional Self

  1. Fraught with Peril. The duality of private and personal self is always treachorous and always a Master to Be Served. The good news is that this is true regardless of one’s place in this world. We must know ourselves to be successful in any endeavor. We must see and understand the distinction of who we are in all contexts, with all people.
    To thine own self, be True. Perhaps, a cheesy maxim and yet no deeper truth abides. For first one must know thy self. Embrace this challenge in life, keep humor and love close at hand and as Red Green says, Keep your stick on the ice.

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